Alessandro Rabottini is an art critic and curator who lives and works between London and Milan. He has been the artistic director of MIART—International Modern and Contemporary Art Fair, Milan—since 2017. Rabottini has curated many exhibitions in European museums and institutions.
In 2006 the artist Sterling Ruby began a series of sculptures with the common title ACTS, an acronym for “Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity”—a studiedly violent title for calmly violent sculptures. All of the works in the ACTS series employ the same seemingly simple formal juxtaposition: wide urethane blocks are placed atop broad laminate-clad pedestals, in a play of equilibrium and statics between the two parts that varies according to the case, suggesting here more, there less dramatically the possibility of a ruinous spill.
If the laminate pedestals reveal scattered signs of vandalism (such as scratches, scuff marks, inscriptions, and traces of spray paint), the urethane blocks appear almost lyrically pictorial, innervated as they are with color dyes that seem to have been dripped into the synthetic material and captured permanently mid-descent. If from a visual and tactile point of view the laminate seems like a “deaf” material, almost catatonic in its common, domestic, and entirely unprecious use, the transparency and chromatic exuberance that instead distinguish the urethane blocks and pigments create a sharp break between the two parts of each sculpture, and the imbalance that distinguishes the series ultimately creates a form of psychological tension, almost a state of alert.
Since the very beginning of his prolific career, Ruby has organized his production in bodies of work that he reiterates over time, often returning to a particular typology across several years. But if his various series and media—which range from ceramics to painting by way of sculpture, video, collage, and, more recently, fashion—can at times appear disparate, an intimate coherence dominating Ruby’s practice as a whole is gradually becoming apparent.
To appreciate the scale of the theoretical and formal edifice that the artist has been building for the last fifteen years or so, we can attribute the genesis of the ACTS series to the video work Dihedral, created in 2006, and thus in the early years of Ruby’s career. Dihedral consists of a fixed shot of what is presumably an aquarium, though the tight framing excludes any visual reference that might help us to understand the true nature of the container of liquid that constitutes the space of the action. What we see, more precisely, is a progressive choreography of colored liquids that are successively poured in to dissolve and mix among themselves, creating an unstable, fluctuating chromatic landscape that continually coalesces and disperses before our eyes. Dihedral seems to illustrate the process that we see already completed in the urethane blocks of ACTS: the pigments that in Dihedral we see in constant motion and becoming are in ACTS fixed and suspended, almost imprisoned. What once was fluid is now solidly inert.
Things get murkier when we lend our attention to the video’s soundtrack, which consists of a voice-over that, rather impenetrably and in a monotone, ruminates on matters relating to space and form. The text from which these statements are extracted is an article that Roger Caillois published in the 1930s, in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, titled “Mimétisme et la psychasthénie légendaire” (Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia), a disquisition on mimicry among insects that argues in favor of a system of knowledge in which rationality and the centrality of the subject are reduced to a possibility equivalent to others, a point like another within an undifferentiated space dominated by dislocation. And so the movement of the colors takes on a different, deeper psychological valence and becomes the image of a force that, by its very nature, is not only mobile and multiform but also struggles to stay contained inside a rigid structure, be it spatial (like an aquarium) or cognitive or moral. We can thus understand how the sculptures in the ACTS series stage forms of juxtaposition and opposition: if the upper, urethane part represents the immobile and lifeless space that literally contains and delimits something that would otherwise fluctuate in a state of free transformation, the laminate pedestals equally suggest a state of frustration and anger, but of opposite sign. Indeed, the urethane blocks display what remains following an expansive movement that proceeded from the inside toward the outside, an attempt that was frustrated; the laminate pedestals, on the other hand, are the site of an external aggression that comes up against an impenetrable, closed-in-upon-itself monolith.
The principle of opposition (between an impulse and its containment, between what is individual and what is normative), and of the violence that can spring from this antinomy, is a structural element of Ruby’s entire artistic output, something that runs through it like a backbone and is discoverable in several of his bodies of work. WIDW (an abbreviation for “Window”), for example, is a series of large wall pieces begun in 2016 in which acrylic and oil paint blaze alongside collaged cardboard and fabric elements. A vast chromatic field—expressive and monumental, almost meditative in its quiet disorder of gestures and materials—is barred with an intruding geometric sign that warns of and establishes a distance: we can see, but only through interference, a negation. Another form of negation—albeit a more subliminal one, so thoroughly interiorized as to be inherent to the specificity of the medium itself—appears in Ruby’s extensive use, since the beginning of his career, of ceramics. Speaking of the medium, he evokes as much the idea of expression as those of inhibition and impediment: “Once fired, the clay becomes a kind of monument to its prior malleability or expression. As soon as it hits the kiln it takes on the status of what once was, and it becomes a truncated or frozen gesture.”1 This same discourse can be applied to the series Monument Stalagmite (2005–13)—whose appearance of upward thrust is the result of overturning a PVC-and-foam structure upon which a large quantity of urethane resin has been dropped from above (thus here too we find a material that once was viscous)—and to SP (2007–14), in which the instability of spray paint, as an ethereal material, immediately solidifies on the canvas.
The gigantism of some of Ruby’s interventions, his very occupation of space, and his formidable output itself suggest a desire to build a congested place where anxiety is expressed as both origin and expression of conflict.
In Dihedral we saw pigments left free to fluctuate, then shortly after found them immortalized in fixity in the urethane blocks of the ACTS series. In the ceramics, too, we find a material predisposed to constant change that has now become immutable. Ruby has linked the origin of the ACTS series to his desire to expand not only the scale of the ceramic works but also their sense of monumentality and imbalance: “I did want to think of [ACTS] as monuments, like civic sculptures or something. I wanted them to feel overwhelming. I wanted them to defy gravity in a way that the ceramics couldn’t. Buried within that was the idea that there is a futility hidden in the creation of large monuments.”2
Here, then, the artist makes explicit not only the formal and psychological dynamic associating the properties of viscosity, malleability, and fluidity to an inner state of freedom (if one subject sooner or later to frustrating coercion), but also and above all the importance he gives to monumental scale, with its relation to architecture and public space. This is where Ruby expresses his critique of coercion, basing a large part of the grammar of ACTS on a form of interruption and solidification of fluidity.
There’s something tomblike in the ACTS, which recall the form of the cenotaph, even if the object of monumentalization in this case seems less the memory of an individual than the opposition between impulse and suppression. The result is a complex funereal and formal allegory exploring space, violence, lightness, falling, and rigidification. We might even hypothesize that the words “absolute” and “total” in the phrase “Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity” refer to a dimension of time that is definitive and irreversible, like that of the end.
The very spilling of the liquid pigments into the urethane invokes the gravitational precipitation of material, one of the principal formal and conceptual strategies for moving beyond Minimalism. Artists such as Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, Robert Morris, Robert Overby, and Richard Serra, to name a few, deliberately explored failure to dominate materials and their behavior, loss of control over them, and the dispersion of unity into parts. At the beginning of Ruby’s career, this tendency to articulate a critique of authority took on quite specific narrative content, above all through monumental geometry’s association with both Minimalism and detention facilities. In time, however, even as they remained pertinent, these references have come to form part of a large and complex language, in which certain psychological tensions and formal asperities (the signs of vandalism on the laminate, for example) become symptoms of a deeper catastrophe, one not limited either to a critique internal to art history or to a simple evocation of violence and urban marginalization. Indeed, ACTS evokes not just monumentality but the emptiness of monumentality, signifying a more general dimension of power as an edifice without clear features other than those of obstruction, limitation, imposition, taking up space. It thus becomes clear that Ruby’s project is aimed less at giving form to a series of individual and social states of tension and more at creating a total identification between the exuberant formalism of his works and the representation of a state of ruin.
Ruby’s juxtapositions and antinomies (geometry versus improvisation, rigidity versus malleability, inadequacy versus normativity, just to be didactic) in his hands become formal and pedagogical instruments: he enables an understanding that proceeds by polarization only to then make the poles collapse on each other, revealing more intimate contradictions. If Ruby’s art seems to be an art of conflict, it is more likely an art of confusion—a confusion not only psychological, moral, and social but penetrating into a deeper state of perception and temporality, a space in which the distinctions and coordinates that ensure order gradually fall away and in which “one can be confused of all the trajectories of time.”3 And this is true not only within Ruby’s art but also in the more general context of his cross-disciplinary approach, implicitly free and antihierarchical—his frequent collaborations with the fashion world, for example, which have recently led him to present his first clothing collection as a designer. That certain distinctive signs of his art—the collagist fervor and patchwork, the paint splatters and recycled materials, the references to the vernacular language of folk art and therapeutic art—can easily pass from a piece of art to a piece of clothing is proof of an expansive and radical artistic project, one in which accumulation and dissemination are seen as instruments for the production of meaning.
In Ruby’s ceaseless exploration of the formal tensions coloring the oppositions we have thus far discussed, he seems to produce an art of anxiety for times of widespread control. The gigantism of some of his interventions, his very occupation of space, and his formidable output itself suggest a desire to build a congested place where anxiety is expressed as both origin and expression of conflict. This is a place that expands, and one in which man’s role seems increasingly indistinct, assimilable, and accidental.
1“Sterling Ruby in Conversation with Catherine Taft,” in Alessandro Rabottini, Sterling Ruby: Grid Ripper, exh. cat., GAMeC–Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2009), p. 110.
2Ruby, quoted in Katy Donoghue, “Studio Visit with Sterling Ruby,” Whitewall, May 18, 2016. Available online at https://www.whitewall.art/art/studio-visit-with-sterling-ruby (accessed July 18, 2019).
3Ruby, conversation with the author, September 6, 2018.
Artwork © Sterling Ruby; photos: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy Sterling Ruby Studio; text translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley